When a novel is promoted as ‘the most anticipated book of the decade’, and when that book is written by the same author that wrote The Book Thief, which sold over 16 million copies world-wide, then there is certainly a heightened sense of anticipation and, I would assume, a whole lot of pressure attached to that forthcoming novel, but Markus Zusak seems to have weathered the storm of expectation since the release of Bridge of Clay (Picador books 2018) at the end of last year. Bridge of Clay is very different to The Book Thief (how could anything be similar?) but it is very good – quite different to what I imagined, and yet again a story that emphasises characterisation, with the minutiae and attention to small details that link together to construct the plot convincingly.
In some ways, this is a novel of contradictions. To state the obvious, it is a very large book, heavy and thick, and yet inside the cover the chapters are mostly short and sharp, and Zusak writes primarily in concise sentences, sometimes of only a few words each. So while it looks like an intimidating read from the outside, once you’re inside the story, it is quite simple and easy to digest. In one sense, it is very much a literary story, but on the other hand it is a down-to-earth Aussie story about a rambunctious house of brothers. It is an emotional story about overwhelming grief but also a practical book about building bridges. It is a metaphor wrapped inside an analogy packed inside an enigma.
And the form or structure of the writing itself is highly unusual. The story is narrated by the oldest Dunbar brother, Matthew, but it is the fourth youngest son, Clay, who is at its heart. And while we have one narrator, we have his retelling of the perspectives of many other characters, as well as the ‘feelings’ or ‘emotions’ of inanimate objects – the weather, household appliances, death – all contributing to the feel of this book as not one story, but as a compilation of points of view from a succession of characters.
The five Dunbar boys – Matthew, Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy – are fending for themselves in their ramshackle house. Their mother is dead and their father has fled. This is a story about how they cope with the aftermath of the disintegration of their family, and how they manage to hold it together. It’s also the story of Clay and the bridge he builds, both physical and metaphorical.
As I said, this story is full of detail. The house is a menagerie of pets: a fish, a pigeon, a cat, a dog and a mule. There is a female jockey and a whole story around racing. There is Greek mythology. There is the history behind the boys’ mother Penelope (and her escape from a country of no hope), their father (and his artistic ability) and their father’s first wife (who has her own story to tell). This book is full of engaging and compelling people, all with their own backstories and their own full lives.
This story features young romantic love, friendship and sibling loyalties. The sweetness of motherhood; the aching responsibility of fatherhood. But mostly it is a story about brothers and brotherly love, about the bonds of blood that may be shaken but rarely broken. And it is a beautiful story about death and grief and loss, and about the responsibility we take for those we feel we have failed, and the complex ways we punish ourselves for those failures. The end, when it comes, is utterly heartbreaking, surprising and yet inevitable. We realise the whole novel has led to this fact. Everything that came before, in the beginning, and even before the beginning, may have at first been intriguing and mysterious, but Zusak brings all of the threads together in an amazing and complex feat of storytelling.